Monday, June 18, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Ghosts

(or "The Purest Example")

For a long time now, I've been using the 'Showcase Presents'/'Essential'/(insert company-specific name here) lines of big, thick digest collections to research these columns. Being able to view some twenty issues at a time of a comic gives me a larger perspective on the series, allowing me to focus on the overall picture and not on a single story. As such, I've tried to do a column on every single digest collection that I've been able to find, even things like anthology series and handbooks and complete histories of the Marvel universe. And for all of them, I've tried to find something that tied them together, an actual collection of ideas and recurring elements that made it a storytelling engine and not just a bunch of stories.

But I think that "Ghosts" stretches that idea to its utmost. It's an anthology, so there are no recurring characters or locations. There are no framing sequences to be had; there's nothing that really ties the various anthology stories together besides a few introductory captions that it's hard not to hear in the voice of Criswell from 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' ("the man who lived in that house had died, twenty years ago. NOW DO YOU BELIEVE IN GHOSTS?") Even the anthology has such a loose linking concept as to be almost useless for creating a unified theme. (The title pretty much says it all. "Ghosts". That's right, it's a whole series about stamp collecting.) Ultimately, there is so little help given to the writer in generating ideas that this is, if not a series without a storytelling engine at all, at least one with as minimal an engine as you're going to get.

And yes, it does show. Without a strong and well-defined linking theme, or a framing sequence to provide a sense of tone, or recurring people, places and things to spark inspiration in the writers' minds, all we're left with is whatever ghost stories the writer could dredge out of their imagination that month. And coming up with three or four ghost stories a month would tax just about anybody's imagination before too long. Within a hundred pages or so, you start feeling like you've read every issue once or twice before, because in a very real sense, you have. This isn't a slight on any of the writers involved, either. I'm sure that it'd be hard for me to come up with three brand-new, clever ghost stories month in, month out for the 112 issues that the series ran. Small wonder that they started ringing in old reliable DC stars of the supernatural like the Spectre and Doctor Thirteen towards the end, just to keep the well from running completely dry. Because although those two don't fit that well together, and although neither one of them is among DC's more popular mystic heroes, they at least have the advantage of bringing a storytelling engine along with them. And for a continuing series, a storytelling engine makes a writer's life a lot easier.

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